Why Facebook makes me sad

‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’

Back in the day, I used to take a mischievous delight in challenging anyone who I ever heard say this.

‘Really? How else do you decide whether to buy a book? And what’s the point of the cover if not to help you make a judgement about whether it’s worth reading?

So, yes, I’m a pedantic pain in the arse.

Thankfully, the advent of ebooks and online reviews means people can now dispense this old wisdom without fear of such irritating interruptions. And there’s a lot of wisdom there to take. Both as a general warning against judging any situation too quickly, and – more importantly in the context of mental health – that appearances can be deceptive.

Games you should play with your pussy
Warning: despite the cover illustration, this book contains no useful advice whatsoever about how to teach your cat to play chess‘ < Thank goodness for online reviews, ay?!

In other words, that friend of yours with the seemingly perfect life? Behind closed doors he spends his hours sat on a three legged stool eating nothing but pink bubble gum whilst talking to his pet caterpillar.

I was recently reminded of this problem, when I found myself uniquely on the other side of the lens.

A colleague was suffering from stress, and experiencing some of the same symptoms I had last year. Sadly, she was in too much of a rush for a proper chat, so as she was leaving I offered a quick warning…

‘Take it easy and don’t let yourself get too stressed. You don’t want to end up like me!’

Her reply?

‘Oh, I wish’

As I walked away, and thought about her tone and body language, the horror began to hit. She wasn’t – as I had automatically assumed – being cheekily sarcastic. This was genuine envy… I thought about running after her:

‘Wait! Things aren’t as they appear! I’m actually severely depressed and in constant inner turmoil! In fact, I’d barely finished sobbing in the toilets when I bumped into you!’

Alas, the moment was gone. But, the lesson was learnt. If even I – the most openly screwed-up person I know – can appear enviable, then you really really can’t trust outside appearances.

Which brings me onto Facebook. That great forum of baby/animal/food photos, ‘inspirational’ quotes’ and – as I recently shouted in a fit of bitterness:

Blatant self-aggrandising propaganda!!!

Five minutes of looking at my Facebook feed, and you’d be hard pressed not to conclude everyone else has millions of friends, are in happy relationships, and are doing the jobs of their dreams. And when they’re not working, they’re ‘checking in’ at trendy restaurants, drinking exotic cocktails, and uploading bizarre pictures of their legs (or hotdogs, I can’t always tell the difference).

These days, it’s almost inconceivable to do something charitable without making sure everyone else knows about it. (Image from The Other Courtney – who, at the end of this fantastic blog post on online bragging, dares her readers to ‘perform random acts of kindness and don’t tell anyone’)

The positive thinking brigade would probably tell me this should make me happy. That I should be happy that my friends are living such amazing lives… While I’m lying in bed, barely able to wash and feed myself.

But… Well… It’s not quite that easy, is it? Because, some of us have this unhelpful habit of benchmarking ourselves against our acquaintances. And by ‘some of us’ I mean ‘almost every decent person I’ve ever met’.

This is especially problematic in cultures like the UK, where people have an unhealthy obsession with ego and status. Keep a stiff upper lip. Don’t wash your dirty linen in public. And whatever you do, don’t give an honest reply if someone asks, ‘How are you?’!

In this context, it seems only natural that so many of us experience schadenfreude; that guilty pleasure when bad things happy to other people. It’s not that we’re fundamentally evil. It’s just that we long to feel that we’re not the only ones with messy and challenging lives.

I, for example, experience very mixed emotions when a friend confesses they’re suffering from mental health problems. Clearly, I’d rather they didn’t. I want my friends to be happy and healthy, whereas I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone. But at the same time… And I feel quite ashamed of admit this… it is a relief to know I’m not the only nut in the house.

For a ‘social utility’ that promises to ‘connect people with friends’ this might be why I (and many others) often feel so sad and lonely after using Facebook. It just doesn’t support the kind of interactions that make me feel accepted for who I am. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when I upload a photo, or post a status, that gets a lot of ‘likes’. But the reverse, is sadly doubly true. The times when you most need a hug, and upload a vulnerable or very personal status, are exactly the times when you’ll be ignored.

How we’re treated on Facebook can really influence our mood. (Image shamefully copied from Spo-Reflections. I doubt he got permission from Charles Schulz either…)

Which is why, last month, I left Facebook. I wouldn’t advise the same for everyone – Facebook is, like it or not, a part of modern life. But I would advise you to think about how you use Facebook and, in particular, how you tend to feel after using it. One thing that might help, is this little tip from Oliver Burkeman‘s ‘Help! How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done‘ (which, by the way, everyone should read). Next time you’re on Facebook looking forlornly at someone’s show-off holiday pics (or perhaps even in real life when someone’s boasting about themselves) just imagine a little box pop up that says,

Don't Forget: This person is barely holding things together

Because you can’t judge a Facebook friend by their cover photo.


30 thoughts on “Why Facebook makes me sad”

      1. Oh, certainly. I’m not tied so inextricably to FB that I can’t fathom cutting ties completely. And aside from disliking the superficiality of it all, I have serious concerns for my privacy, but… There are a couple of people who, if it wasn’t for FB, I might lose touch with completely.

        ::shrug:: What can I say? I love my peeps, yo. I keep deciding, every month or so, that they’re worth the effort to log in and make contact, to keep the channel of communication open even if it’s less than ideal.

      2. I had another thought to share. I was reading through the other responses here, and it occurs to me that FaceBook is exactly what its name suggests: a place where you put your “best face forward”. It’s a matter of survival in a world in which prospective employers will go online and look at your FB to ensure that you are a good fit for them. So, FaceBook me looks more normal than normal.

        When I want to talk about the messiness of my life: the fibro and the depression, the pills and the fatigue, and the sometimes overwhelming desire I have for all of it to just be OVER, I come here where nobody knows my name or my face, but people seem to understand and support me nonetheless. It’s just sad that we live in a culture that treats humanity like a liability.

      3. Yes… You’re right… Our online footprint is something we have to be very careful about, with stigma being what it is. The ‘real’ me is very open about my mental health problems, and some of my friends are nervous about how that honesty might affect my employability (my ‘anonymity’ here is less to protect me than to create a figurehead). In terms of my honesty, I argue that I have *no choice* (I’m too weak to keep up a pretence of a normal person anymore), but when everyone else is presenting their ‘best face’ I guess I will come across unfavourably in comparison. I hope that one day we won’t have to worry about these thing…

  1. Thank you so much for this! I gave up Facebook and Twitter in late 2011, at my lowest ebb. It all suddenly felt so false – like I was the only person who wasn’t ecstatic, just as you describe. I’ve never looked back. I miss a few friends that I made (or rather, people I was never likely to meet or have a more meaningful friendship with), and our online chats. But, not being on Facebook or Twitter just feels good. And, I started up my WordPress page soon after – anonymously. It doesn’t matter if anyone reads it – it is for me. Anyway – thanks for another thought provoking post. It is good to know we’re not alone – and I now fancy getting some pink bubblegum and a pet caterpillar…sounds fun!

    1. It’s quite scary to leave social media, especially if you’re feeling low and therefore lonely. But it is very liberating… And it sounds like you have a fantastic and very healthy approach to blogging! I think with all these things we should be asking whether they are serving us. And if not… ‘Are you sure you want to log out?’…

  2. Very thought provoking… and I agree. It is very enlightening to see things from “the other side of the lens,” as you put it. I have been on and off and on and off and on and off FB many times for various reasons, some of which you have touched on, but primarily due to the time drain and overexposure. I find blogging a much more therapeutic way to hash out and laugh (or cry) about life. FB is a necessary evil for keeping in touch with family and friends back in the states, it is true. (Nobody emails or calls anymore…) But when I see friends on there who post sad and cryptic complaints or “inspirational” verses and phrases, generally about death, loss, frustration and the varying shades of depression, it really makes ME sad. Don’t get me wrong. My heart goes out to them and I do what I can to help. But I am saddened particularly because I feel barking up the FB tree for support and acceptance really, truly leaves them vulnerable, and I just have a THING about showing my furry underbelly to people who may possibly be inclined to rip it open. On Facebook, vulnerability and cries for help are most often ignored, like the dark cloud in the corner of the party.

    1. Yes, that’s a good point, although a tricky one. I don’t think people should be afraid to be honest about their mood, but equally a miserable/cry-for-help status update is never going to help. The whole format is designed around triviality.

      1. My point exactly! W grow ever more shallow… And no, I’m not suggesting we compress our grief or upset. Honesty with self and others is vital.

  3. I liked reading this.
    I wrote something a little similar to this (only my 4th post – I’m very new to this!) where from my point of view everyone seems to be getting ahead of me. (http://bananna29.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/strangling-thoughts/)
    It just made me think about the countless times I have been told that the bad things I feel, I am not the only one. Not in a “just get a grip!” kind of way, but as a reminder that not everyone has it all together.
    I definitely agree that Facebook fuels this judgement. Just reading this post has flagged in my mind that I definitely need to be more cautious on Facebook. Though I doubt I could ever deactivate my account, I do need a new mindset when scrolling down my newsfeed.
    Thanks for the great and invigorating read 😀

  4. From my Facebook page, one would never know that I’ve been going through a 2+ year divorce. I just hate to think of announcing it there to so many people. It’s just not the right place.

    Whenever I think of FB, I think of Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and compassion and courage. These traits are the antithesis of FB, which is superficial – people show only their strengths, because, like me, they don’t want to be the only vulnerable ones up there.

    Which, I suppose, is a lack of courage. 😉

  5. As I said earlier, I can relate to this. I think Facebook exacerbates a lot of behaviour that predates it. Before social media people used to send round-robin letters at the end of the year, which were basically long lists of middle-class achievements to acquaintances who didn’t really give a toss (“Oscar passed his grade 4 flute in February…”) . The Guardian used to invite submissions for the worst (possibly still does, I can’t remember). And when digital photography took off I can remember older friends complaining about being sent Christmas cards with kid-photos on the front by people they hadn’t seen in years. One of the first people I interviewed for a piece of journalism when I was 18 went to the same university we went to a decade before, and I used to feel quite awkward and inadequate when she went on about her high-flying friends. By comparison, social media envy isn’t so bad because at least there is recognition of it and I know other people go through it too – the mantra for anything to do with mental health, eh?

  6. This is an excellent article. I used to find that going on facebook would make me feel worse rather than better. I don’t use facebook as much anymore as a result. Looking forward to reading your other posts.

  7. It would be wonderful if everyone followed suit and Facebook’s 15 minutes of fame would end, but probably not. My sister and I have both left since my Dad died. It was just to much happy cat videos to slog through when all we wanted to do was be sad for sads sake. It was kind of like quitting smoking. I’d slip and have a peek and think, Wow, I don’t miss this.
    Another great post. You really nailed this one.

  8. I appreciate your post. The most annoying posts are when groups of people post pictures from their parties & comment about how much fun they all had. The party you were not invited to! That being said, I was resistant to “join” fb, but I found I was missing out on important information & putting my foot in my mouth more than usual. FB has helped me know what is going on in my very small town, become a little more sensitive when people are going through loss, sickness, etc.. I found it’s also very telling about people based on what they post & the people I want to AVOID, get to know better, etc…
    I ended up “joining” a few years ago after my hubby had started a page but never really went on & people would say to me “why hasn’t he friended me”. ( I honestly didn’t even get what the hell they were talking about). He could give a shit really. He lasted 5 minutes on social media mostly b/c he is the least superficial person I know. But…I got sick a few years ago & spent a lot of time in bed & fb became my link & way to be connected. Sounds sad I know but for an introvert, living in a small town it really helped me. Sometimes it’s just pure entertainment, sometimes it’s discovering really interesting links that I was never aware of or simple reminders that the curriculum fair is tonight at the school. I try to take it for what it is & to think about the audience when I post things (the entire public).

  9. Great post! I left Google+ because of what it was doing to me. The amount of time that would sucked away was getting out of hand. Facebook is something I barely use. I get no notifications from it, it is buried in a folder 3 screens back on my smart telephone. Since the dawn of social media I’ve seen people less and less. And that’s sad.

    1. Yes! I haven’t even touched on the amount of time wasted! At best, social media is a terrible double edged sword. At worst, like you say, it drains the meaning out of
      friendships 😦

  10. That’s the difficult thing.. that yes everyone has their own story and their own struggles but from what you can see sometimes the things that you feel you aren’t adequate in, they seem amazing at. I struggle with sleep and waking up/being on time and i often envy those around me who are so organized, on time and can fall asleep when they need to. I don’t dispute that they must have their struggles and issues in different areas that must affect their life as well, I just feel that from my perspective they have something that I don’t, and in that way they are doing better than me.

  11. I’ve not left FB but I became aware of how bad it made me feel a few years ago during trying to get myself out of depression. So now, i try to only go on there to see if theres any new messages and don’t look at other peoples posts etc. I let myself slip up on this recently and i ended up with incredibly low self esteem about my body, as soon as i stopped ‘stalking’, i started to feel better again.
    I think FB also affects my partner negatively, but he dismisses my attempt to tell him its not making him feel positive!

  12. This is a dilemma in our society now. We live in this digital age where people are so obsessed with technology that they now use it as a means of gaining support. As I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed of a night, a large abundance of people are posting status’s about how sad and depressing their day was, or their life is. They are clearly looking for some support from their Facebook friends, but I am sorry putting a love heart on a status does not really achieve much. As a society we are continuing to ignore the importance of human interaction. Facebook can not give you a hug and tell you everything is going to be okay, but your friend can. We need to stop venting on Facebook, and go back to when we would vent to our friends and family. Thanks for producing such a great article.

    I write a blog that attempts to encourage human interaction and promote happiness within society. Check it out if you will:http://stophappytime.wordpress.com

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